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Wot I Think: Hitman Season One

Plus thoughts on Episode 6: Japan

Hitman [official site] is a third-person action adventure concerning the stealth assassination of various colourful ne'er-do-wells, accomplished via stealing disguises and faking unlikely accidents. Over the past year, it's been released in six discrete episodes, but as of this month its first 'season' is now complete. We've written about episodes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 individually, but here we sum up both the Japan-set episode six and the first year of the game as a whole.

The big question, other than "seriously, how can he even get into anywhere with that big old barcode on his head?" is "is it GOOD THING or HORRIBLE TERRIBLE POINTLESS EXPLOITATIVE THING that Hitman is/was an episodic game?" Having played the final chapter of what they're calling 'Season One', I can answer that at last. I think.

Right. There are two ways to look at it. One is that, in terms of length and content and Hitman history, no, there is not anything particular to this latest Hitman that means it absolutely had to be split into monthly-ish chapters. It could have been released all in one go and we wouldn't have thought twice about it. Other than that the majority of its levels were impressively lavish - which I'll get to a bit later.

In terms of story, no, this has not been successful as a dramatic serial - its mission bookending cutscenes are dour and functional, as well as retreading a great deal of Hitmannish conspiracy theory ground, and most of all have very little do with what happens in the missions. Perhaps some superfans will think otherwise, but there's been no Thronesy compulsion to find out what happens next for me. As such, the episodic structure falls flat on its pouty face there.

The other side of the coin is that the way Hitman has been released has been absolutely perfect for me. Admittedly this may not be a universal sentiment. My job often entails binge-playing stuff and thus rarely being able to let any individual mission or sequence soak in before moving onto the next one, so it's refreshing to get to/have to approach Hitman in chunks.

Even so, Hitman has offered an answer for how I play games in my spare time too. Kidcare means I can only free up so many hours for gaming, and if the New Hotness comes up while I'm only part way through something, I'm a devil for dropping it on the spot so I can do whatever everyone else is frothing about.

With Hitman, that hasn't happened. Every time a new chapter has wheeled around, it's been both a great excuse to go back and the chance to do so without the dread certainty that I'll be horribly confused because I can't remember what the hell I was doing. Each chapter has been, effectively, a total reset, and they've been carefully designed so that they have optional easy, or at least obvious, routes to assassination, so that you're not thrown into the deep end if you can't quite remember how it all works.

Structurally, Hitman has worked ever so well for me. Even in Blood Money, probably still the series' high watermark, I blasted through most of the missions to see what was next rather than lingered and replayed. Whereas in Hitman 2016, not having the next mission available meant I have replayed and revisited and seen things I didn't even know were there first time around.

There's two complications here. One is that, well, the 'season' is now over which means the wait'n'resurge approach is now over, at least until whatever season two entails ends up happening. So anyone who's not tried Hitman before now basically gets a traditional full game, depending on how they choose to pay for it (it's still sold either per episode or as a season pack). Grab the whole shebang and you surely will blast through the 'story' in sequence, not necessarily lingering with a map after completing its main objectives for the first time.

The other is that, yes, I've seen the complaints - it's meant Hitman arguably received six times the coverage that its contemporaries did. I get why people are uncomfortable about that, but can only refer you to the above few paragraphs: this structure has worked very well indeed for me, and it's made me (and others on RPS) genuinely want to revisit it as new stuff comes out.

The other masterstroke Hitman's managed is add-ons for its missions during the wait for the next one. Granted, this has likely been artificial, done to keep up interest and indeed coverage, but Elusive Targets and Contracts have been excellent excuses to pop back to places I thought I was done with. This is going to be a huge boon to the now all-in-one game, as it means a level comes replete with a whole bunch of stuff to do after completion.

Even the menus, designed for episodic releases, offer all these different points of entry, temptations to try this or that rather than just a prompt to plough on with the next level. I've 'finished' chapter 6, Japan, but Hitman retains such a strong pull: all these places to go back to and new people to kill in darkly ingenious ways.

Let's talk about the Japan episode, actually. Hokkaido is a very classicly Hitmannish level in its way - the combination of high concept (private high-tech hospital-cum-opulent health spa for the super-rich) and ridiculous setting (on the side of vast, snow-topped mountains).

Its targets are there for frankly crazy reasons, such as a three-day heart operation involving stem cell replacement and performed by an AI-controlled robot, and the place is laced with nudge-nudge opportunities to fake their accidental deaths. Poisoning sushi, hacking the robot's AI, swapping the replacement heart...

Of course, there's a ninja outfit option too, because Japan. Hitman rarely lets on that it's laughing, but it almost always is. Apart from in those miserable cutscenes.

Hokkaido is vast and ornate, and puts paid to any concerns that the game was winding down its scope and scale after the comparatively small and tense episode 5. It's a fine finale, and I finished my first playthrough with a real itch to go find and try out the methods I'd missed first time around.

In some of these episodes, it's been glaringly obvious what the alternate assassination routes were, and I've not always bothered to do them because it was more a matter of patience than investigation. In this case, I genuinely couldn't work out the other ways of killing its main duo, open murder spree aside, and that's exactly how I like it. I have work still to do.

If there's a downside to this particular level, it's that it revisits and recycles the first mission's already-dubious 'hey, there's a bald famous guy who looks just like you!' gimmick. It works as a gag, but it's a bit of an eye-roller of a solution.

The other thing that bugged me is that one of the major murder-puzzles specifically requires having a screwdriver, of which there are very few on the map. Even once I could see exactly what I had to do, and had pulled off the elaborate subterfuge required to pull it off, I had to spend a good half hour painstakingly scouring the map for a metal stick. Minor, yes, but for me it hurt the flow quite a bit. That aside, this map's definitely a strong one.

And now I can talk about the game as a whole. It's the second best Hitman game at worst, and the best Hitman game at best. The levels, with the possible exception of Colorado, are huge and beautiful, proper spaces that it's agreeably difficult to mentally map the complete geography thereof. In terms of presentation and scale, nothing else in the series - and remarkably little else in recent blockbuster games, for that matter - rivals it. In terms of stuff it's brimful too, despite having only a half-dozen levels. It'll keep you busy, certainly.

On the other hand, I don't know how many memorable moments it gave me. 2006's Hitman: Blood Money was a tombola of blackly comic surprises, whereas this has a more consciously aloof tone, does repeat a few death-concepts you might have seen before and, most of all, does overly-telegraph some its most amusingly preposterous assassination sequences.

Killing a dude by dropping a ceiling-mounted giant moose statue onto his head, for instance, wasn't quite as funny as it was probably supposed to be, because he spent a very long time sitting right underneath said giant moose statue. The slapstick doesn't quite land, and moreover Hitman tends to require more precision than Blood Money, so you don't get many of those desperate, flailing, bungled and yet somehow getting-away-it chain reactions of the latter.

I miss that, but I appreciate that for some people Hitman should be the game of perfect silent assassination, and with its more easily-spooked NPCs, rarely alone targets and often open-plan areas, it certainly is that.

This is an excellent Hitman game, and a substantial one. As an all-in-one package it perhaps doesn't feel as vast as it did when released in chunks, but it still works well. The experiment to make each level bigger, more distinctive and more ornate instead of having a glut of them has worked extremely well.

If rushed through as a six-map story-led affair you're perhaps going to feel a little short-changed, both in terms of length and in terms of dramatic satisfaction. I very strongly recommend playing it the way I did: it's been so refreshing. Make each level the focus of a string of weeknights, exploring every corner and taking out every target, rather than ditch it the second you've played it once.

How do I feel about a second season? Well, by and large I do want one, but there are times when Hitman doesn't quite leave its comfort zone of > this looped NPC behaviour > this disguise > this locked door > this convenient machine, and I fear that another six chapters of that might feel routine. I'd like it to find ways to shake things up, not just be more of the same. Hitman has won absolution from Absolution - but now things are back on track, it will need to move forwards too.

Hitman Season One, including the recent Episode 6, is out now for Windows, via Steam and Humble. You either buy the whole shebang for £40/$60, or drop £11/$15 on the first episode plus a prologue then £7/$10 each or £33/$50 altogether for the later episodes.

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